How one black church uses faith to fight unemployment

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One year and 11 days.

That is the exact amount of time Charwin Nah, 48, went without work almost two years ago.

It is a calculation that rolls off of his tongue quite easily without much thought.
“I found myself unemployed for one year and 11 days,” said the Liberian native now residing in the Washington D.C. area. “It was a shock because I had worked most of my adult life. That within itself was a rude awakening.”

Just shy of 13 years with the same company and then, boom, his position was eliminated. He admits he was angry, hurt even. He thought everyone on the job liked him and that they would look out for him.

“But liking you is one thing,” he said. “They had their own jobs to save and they had to keep the company afloat.”

His last day on that job was October 16, 2009. He started working a new job October 27, 2010.

“You just assume, ‘I will find a job,’” he said. “You have wonderful leads, great interviews, you present yourself well, and it seems easy.”

Looking for new employment can be, and for most is, a full-time job itself. Many looking for work admit that it can be a challenging experience after awhile. And some believe one of the reasons for the challenge is the emotion that comes along with not just looking for new work, but the emotion that comes along with losing a job.

“People bottle it all up,” said Nah. “They play the game as if everything is business as usual.”

But losing a job, said Nah, is a grieving process. It is a death of a relationship.

These are some of the issues where the church and faith-based initiatives have an important role in helping deal with the unemployment crisis today. Whenever someone loses a job, the one main thing often overlooked is their grief.

Churches have a very big role in this space, said Ben Seigel, deputy director for the Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Churches are unique in helping the members of their communities in dealing with the emotional stages,” Seigel said. “What we have found, and churches have shown us, is that once they can get past the anger stage, and are helped in rebuilding their self-esteem, then they can become more productive job seekers.”

Department of Labor has launched Partnerships Community of Practice (CoP) as a means to helping combat unemployment. Seigel calls it the Department of Labor’s own matchmaker service. It is an “online meeting spot,” according to the Department of Labor, designed to connect job seekers, churches and faith-based initiatives to one another in a means of sharing resources, jobs announcements, successes, tools, etc.

Churches and faith-based initiatives affiliated with this program are called Job Clubs. Job Clubs, according to a press release, offer an opportunity for unemployed individuals to share job search techniques and professional networks, learn about careers and programs, and provide one another peer support.

“Churches are the place where community members feel comfortable going whether receiving services or talking to someone about the unemployment challenges they are facing,” Seigel said. “Oftentimes individuals feel more comfortable going to their church for help than into a government office.”

Across the country, hundreds of churches are hosting and organizing their own employment ministries, said Seigel. Understanding this, they decided it would be helpful to bring these entities together to better widen their scope and reach.
“Churches are the ground zero. More and more churches are getting involved. And we are very supportive of that,” he said. “We are working to make sure we are able to connect the churches into our public workforce network system so that they can get additional resources.”

Nah’s church, Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. is one of those churches Seigel references. Even though the Department of Labor’s Job Clubs is in its infant stages, Rev. Dr. Jesse Wood said their employment ministry at Metropolitan has been in existence for at least three years.

He said traditionally, the black church has been the nucleus of life in our community, so taking the task of helping folks find employment opportunities is not anything new for the church.

“In the past, so much that happened in the black church was through word of mouth. If someone was out of job, they went to the pastor and the pastor had certain connections. It was all about who you knew. Or we put them up on bulletin boards,” Wood said. “That kind of worked then. Today, churches do not get actively involved as they could or should. They do not create the vehicle. Some are still doing the old school way. But that is kind of playing out.”

Many churches do not want to get involved in faith based initiatives, Wood said, or start 501©3 non-profit organizations.

But what they have done at Metropolitan is just that. They have used their non- profit outreach arm to help their members dealing with the issues and stigma of unemployment.

There are about 20 to 25 persons who work with the church’s employment ministry. They provide one-on-one volunteers assistance in area of career preparation, resume reviews, referral opportunities that may be outside of the church, how to participate in an interview and how to prepare for application.

In addition, on the first and third Sunday of every month they set up a job expo between services, which includes a compiled list of job opportunities.

However, Wood said, at Metropolitan, it is about more than just jobs. Yes, 26 percent of those who have sought assistance through their employment ministry have found new employment, including Nah. But at the same time, what they realized was that people were coming to them broken.

They were grief stricken and stressed. They realized that there was a need for pastoral care in the process. Having a counseling ministry at the church was a huge help for Metropolitan.

“That has been a learning curve,” Wood said. “If they are not mentally and emotionally ready, then they won’t be successful in finding new work.”

There was always an encouraging word, said Nah, which impacted his job search tremendously.

“But not just to encourage. There was always someone to listen,” he said. “On any given Sunday people were willing to provide information and job leads. People were willing to follow-up with you. There was always someone willing to ask, ‘how are you doing?’”

It was more than employment service, it was ministry, Nah said.

“All of the words of inspiration, ‘God will provide,’ etc is good. But sometimes all you need is someone to be there, listen and let you vent,” he said. “There was one person who was very persistent in making sure I did not get discouraged. She would always tell me, ‘If you need to talk, I am here, whatever you need; you let me know.’ I honestly believe that’s what helped me come out unscathed.”

That is what the system at Metropolitan is set up to do. That is what they believe true Christianity, true discipleship is supposed to be about. And much of it would not happen if it were not for some committed persons who are not getting paid to do this work, Wood said.

“Their reward is when someone says, ‘I got the job.’”

But they are not just focused on the unemployed, but also the under employed or those looking to get into the workforce for the first time.

“Some want and need to enhance their employment; something better,” said Wood. “And others are looking to get out there for the first time.”

According to statistics released by the Department of Labor earlier this month, the number of unemployed persons (13.9 million) and the unemployment rate (9.1 percent) were essentially unchanged in May. Seigel said one of the best ways to deal with the unemployment crisis is by working together. They are hoping the Job Clubs initiative is one way and a good start.

For Nah, being unemployed for that year is not something he said he would want to go through again.

“But I appreciate it. Experience is a good teacher,” he said. “I don’t take my journey lightly. I am grateful and learned a lot about God and me. So, I am good.”